January 10, 2005

January 10, 2005 | Commentary on Europe

Egypt's Nuclear Option

As if North Korean and Iranian nuclear weapons programs weren't enough, now it seems Egypt may be pursuing the bomb as well.

The evidence isn't conclusive yet. But according to an initial International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) statement last week, several Egyptian scientists conducted unreported nuclear experiments over the past 30 years.

That's reason for concern. Egypt, a signatory to the United Nations' nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), had promised to swear off nuclear weapons. And, like all treaty members, Cairo is required to supply the IAEA with a written declaration of past nuclear work.

Well, it turns out that Egypt forgot to mention some nuclear activities in its 1982 declaration. And it failed to inform the IAEA about some new work since then, too.

Egypt denies violating the treaty, but the IAEA is analyzing environmental samplings from nuclear facilities near Cairo, looking for evidence of uranium enrichment or plutonium extraction.

Discovery of an Egyptian nuclear program would rattle Middle East peace and stability, further pull the rug out from under teetering U.N. nonproliferation treaties and possibly crumble Egypt's relatively strong relationship with the U.S.

* Nonproliferation: While some pooh-pooh the idea of an Egyptian nuclear program, it really isn't that far-fetched. Pakistan's rogue nuclear scientist, A.Q. Khan, is said to have been in contact with Egypt, and Cairo has had a long-standing ballistic missile relationship with nuclear-capable North Korea.

Also, during a Sino-Egyptian summit two years ago, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak signed a peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement with China. That same year, press reports indicated that China (also nuclear-capable) was helping Egypt mine uranium in the Sinai desert.

Catching another country with its hand in the nuclear cookie-jar will implode the NPT, and put couscous on the face of Mohammed El Baradei, the courtly Egyptian who is seeking an unprecedented (U.S.-opposed) third term as head of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency

 * Middle East: Discovery of an Egyptian nuclear program would certainly alarm Israel, which has its own nuclear deterrent. But it would really set off alarm bells for Egypt's other neighbors - Libya and Saudi Arabia.

(Libya is in the process of dismantling its nuclear weapons program, while Saudi Arabia is rumored to be building one.)

Conventional wisdom says that the Egyptian program is aimed at Israel. But the smart money says Cairo may be as concerned about balancing Iran's nuclear weapons program as that of its immediate neighbors - or Israel.

Sunni-Arab Egypt has always been antsy about Shi'a-Persian Iran's attempts to export its 1979 fundamentalist revolution. In any case, news of loose neutrons on the Nile will cause insomnia in Jerusalem, Tripoli, Tehran, Riyadh - and Washington.

* American Interests: Cairo and Washington have been partners for some time, including in the important Middle East peace process.

The U.S. gives Egypt $2 billion in aid annually ($1.3 in military aid) to keep the peace with Israel under the 1978 Camp David Accords. All told, Washington has provided over $25 billion in economic and development assistance to Egypt since 1975.

In the past, Egypt was a hotbed for Islamic extremism, and Cairo remains an important ally in the War on Terror. Egypt is also critical to the transit of American ships through the Suez Canal.

It would be quite a dilemma for the U.S., should it turn out that Egypt is indeed pursuing nukes. Could Washington continue aid if it appears that Cairo has nuclear ambitions? And what effect would aid cutoff have on Egypt's role in Middle Eastern peace and fighting terrorism?

(The U.S. Congress likely will have very strong views on this.)

It's certainly possible that the IAEA's Egyptian discovery is nothing more than the unsanctioned work of some rogue Egyptian Dr. No. This appears to be the case in recent dust-ups over nuclear activities in South Korea.

Whatever the case, Washington must deal with Cairo carefully. Remember, Pakistan's pursuit of nukes - and its subsequent isolation - ruined our post-Cold War relationship with the South Asian Muslim giant for years.

And what was the result of our 1990s policies of isolating Pakistan?

The first Muslim nuclear weapons state, and A.Q. Khan's proliferation of nuclear knowledge to North Korea, Iran, Libya - and maybe even Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

In addition, Pakistan's pariah status brought Islamabad's support for the Taliban's rise in Afghanistan, and the festering of international terrorism, culminating in the horrors of 9/11.

Preventing nuclear proliferation is tough business. Let's hope we do better with Egypt.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow. E-mail: peterbrookes@heritage.org

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post